1. The St. Olaf Orchestra, Saturday. St. Olaf is a small liberal-arts college in Minnesota known for its music program, which is huge for a small college. The music faculty has 60 members; I don't think even Stanford's is that big. And the orchestra is excellent. They played the Enigma Variations as if it were a suite of separate movements, which was just the way to counter-act the glaring shifts of mood with which it abounds. They also played a new work inspired by Bill McKibben's writings on global warming, which was just as depressing as you might guess.
This was the first concert on their west coast tour. They take a tour somewhere every year: last year Florida (where they did not play the global-warming piece, though they had it then, because they didn't think it would be welcomed, despite Florida being even more vulnerable than California), next year Argentina. This year was NoCal's turn. The concert was at a church in San Mateo that was really too small for a large orchestra, but whose music director is a St. Olaf alum. I heard about this because they sent a press release to the Daily Journal, so I covered it for them. The review won't be published until later, so I'll link to it then.
2. Diablo Symphony, Sunday. I drove all the way to the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek for this amateur community orchestra because I loved the program, which was specifically chosen to highlight gems you never get to hear in concert. Unfortunately it's not a very good orchestra, and its performances of Suk's Scherzo Fantastique and Arriaga's Symphony in D - both absolute treasures and completely unknown to the general - were sluggish enough that they mostly served to remind me of better recordings heard in the past. The Respighi Adagio for cello and orchestra was worse, and the soloist, though the principal cellist of a couple of better orchestras, was completely inadequate.
However, they somehow worked up the gumption to close the concert with a wonderfully incisive and witty performance of Malcolm Arnold's Scottish Dances, with tremendous renditions of Arnold's signature brass "whoop"s. Arnold has been one of my favorite composers for 45 years, since my earliest days of listening, and this is one of my favorites of his works, yet I had never heard a note of his performed at a live concert until now.
3. Pavel Haas Quartet, Monday. The standout venue for chamber music in the City is the 1930s Herbst Theatre, but it's been closed for earthquake renovation. It's just about to reopen, but this concert was scheduled for the interim fill-in site, off-nights at the still-new SF Jazz Center. Since I'm unlikely to go there for the music it was built to play, this was my last chance to try out the Jazz Center, so I got a ticket for this concert.
It's an interesting hall. Steeply raked to improve sightlines (not generally considered a big thing in classical) with wrap-around seating on three sides (classical sites tend to be fussier about acoustical placement) and some flat seating on the floor that can be removed for large ensembles, it resembles the old Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium in layout more than any other hall I know. There are cupholders in the armrests, something you'd never see in a classical venue. The acoustics are very bright and close up, almost unnervingly so, but also extremely dry and unreverberant, something else you wouldn't have in a classical venue.
But it was fairly appropriate for this program of three tough quartets that might please aesthetically-touchy modern jazz listeners: Beethoven's Op. 95, Prokofiev's First, and Bartok's Fifth. The music received extremely expository readings, with the material laid out neatly and precisely.